Labour Pains: Are unions still relevant?

A panel of organized labour and business experts will debate the relevance of unions in the 21st Century at a CBC town hall Tuesday in Hamilton and streamed live online.
According to Statistics Canada, just under 30 per cent of the workforce — some 4.3 million employees — was unionized in 2011. (File Photo)

While union membership is down in the auto industry, the director of automotive research for the Odette School of Business says they are not out.

Tony Faria says unions remain relevant and powerful.

"They exert a major influence," he said. "It's probably stronger in the US. I think the UAW clearly has President Obama's ear and is a major influence in democratic policy in the U.S. but the unions still have political influence."

'Unions still have political influence.'— Tony Faria, automotive expert

It's influence unions are trying to use to thwart the federal and provincial Conservatives from bringing in right-to-work legislation unions now call right-to-work-for-less legislation.

University of Windsor business professor emeritus Alfie Morgan said there is no excuse for corporations to insist on concessions from workers, which he said hurts our economy.

"I have a feeling that we are being driven by the global club to the lowest common denominator: the wages in China and India," he said."To ask people to take a pay cut at this time and in this economy is unfair."

Hiram Walker unionized employee Daryl MacLean said "it seems like working people are under constant attack right now."

"All you hear about is executive compensation rising many multiple times more than they used to be versus our wages," he said.

Economist Mark Meldrum sais executives should be paid more because they have better educations.

"You can't pay workers more and give consumers cheaper goods all at the same time," he said. "So if we pay workers more everybody has to pay more."

Figures from Statistics Canada suggest the labour movement in Canada is in a 30-year decline. And while numbers have stabilized in recent years, organized labour is surviving but not thriving — and anchored disproportionately in the public sector.

Just under 30 per cent of the workforce — some 4.3 million employees — was unionized in 2011, a slight increase both in percentage and absolute numbers over 2010.

Fight against right to work

Organized labour is gearing up for a fight against the legislation.

Members of CAW Local 444, which represents Chrysler and Caesar's employees, voted unanimously to fight right-to-work legislation and any changes to the Rand Formula.

The Rand Formula was born out of the Ford strike in Windsor back 1945.

After 99 days, the strike ended with an arbitrated settlement by Supreme Court Justice Ivan Rand.

His ruling set out that workers would not be forced to join a union, but anyone covered by a collective agreement must pay union dues.

The CAW is worried some politicians want that changed.

Dino Chiodo, the president CAW Local 444, said his members are ready to take whatever action is necessary to protect what they won years ago.

"We're seeing Tim Hudak, with his white paper, come forward attacking unions, so this is an individual we see as dangerous," Chiodo said.

Hudak's paper, Paths to Prosperity: Flexible Labour Markets, suggests ways to modernize the labour laws.

Chiodo called what could become a labour showdown the biggest fight unionized workers have ever faced.

A campaign is underway within different labour groups to educate their members about what's taking place and to mount a fight, just in case.

'We're not going backwards.'— Dino Chiodo, CAW Local 444

"We're going to be ready to participate and deal with it the way we need to deal with it because we're not going backwards," Chiodo said.

Faria doesn't believe the right-to-work legislation would eliminate unions. He said unions would simply have to work harder to convince workers to sign a union card.

Steve Taylor, who represents workers at Hiram Walker, said right-to-work hurts everyone, not just the workers.

"The work for less legislation and stuff like that is really going to be a detriment to our community," he said. "When people are making less they have less to spend and less to give to charities."